Part 3. Painted Canyon
I rechristened the patch of scraggly ground, “Camp Humility.” My thoughts were actually of another Scott; Scott’s doomed Arctic expedition and his last icy camp just a few miles short of food, warmth and his base. And sure enough, this camp would be icy too. It froze that night after our quick dinner of vegetarian spaghetti, leaving the tents crusted with a morning rime of ice. Our wet clothes hung out to dry on the surrounding bushes were like frozen cardboard the next morning.
A short float and we finally reached our goal of Painted Canyon at mile 43. This day was to be as sunny and glorious as the last day was miserable. Our camp stretched out for a hundred yards as everyone found a special spot on the sun drenched multi-level rock ledge, or along its wonderfully sculpted pools and dry waterfalls. This grand stone balcony overlooked the long gnarly expanse of Painted Canyon Rapid, the largest on the Pecos and certainly not a place to risk running fully loaded boats.
I discovered our first rock art site quite by accident on a scramble to find a small patch of dirt, quite a ways from camp. Looking up, I glimpsed red vertical streaks in the hollowed rock shelter too uniform to be natural. Gathering everyone, we found almost the entire shelter marked by a great grid of mysterious red painted lines. On a traverse along the cliff face we found another shelter site with fading red shamans. In a pattern we were to see again, the left side of the shelter had blackened ceiling from what may have been the “kitchen” area, the right was decorated with pictographs. To respectfully enter these sites, with no footprints on their sandy floors, gave a great sense of discovery.
As everyone else crashed at the campsite like spent turtles to enjoy the fine mix of cool breeze and warm afternoon sun, the less intelligent of us took a hike up Painted Canyon in search of more rock art. A mile long scramble up the canyon floor became a real slow attack through a torturous puzzle of house sized boulders broken by still pools of water and thorny brush. We found no rock art, but did find some “metate” holes typical of the Pecos, ground approximately about 4 inches in diameter and 8 or more deep in the solid limestone floor, the product of untold years of grinding. Why these holes are so uniform in character, and what they were actually used for, is a mystery.
Then the white shirted rancher yelled at us from high up on the canyon wall. It took us awhile, but then we realized the rancher was actually Tom. He found some small figures painted in a shelter high up the canyon wall, but had to traverse the narrow ledges almost a quarter mile in each direction to get there. Hearing what it took to get up there, we yelled back, great, tell us about it in camp. That night we dined on King Ranch chicken to the music of the rushing rapid below us.Due to the high fast water, lining the boats was not feasible as in years past, so we carried all the boats and gear around the rapid. Soon, we passed the old abandoned Triple R canoe lift frame at mile 44 ½. This is where we took out on our very first trip, the assembly of salvaged auto parts lifting by hand crank our cable suspended canoes up almost 300 feet over a side canyon. It was a really cool piece of machinery, like something from a third world country, now rusting slowly away.
At mile 45 ¼, we hit the weir dam where the lower Pecos gauging station is. Portaging over the weir, we scouted and ran the rather fun rapid immediately below. On the cliff above us, some new houses appeared marring the cliff where the old ranch unfortunately has been broken up for piecemeal speculation.
One more major rapid, and then the river finally gave way to the now rising lake water about mile 48, leaving about 12 miles of flat water paddling ahead. Our great fear was that the prevailing southeast wind would return, making progress exceedingly difficult. Fortunately for us, probably due to the previous norther, there was not a breadth of wind. The sky and cliffs to either side reflected perfectly on the mirrored surface before us, as if traveling suspended on an invisible horizon.From here we threaded through a slot of great canyon walls, the water studded with great bleached boulders the size of small houses. Imagine a field of desert icebergs, and you would not be far off. Their great bulk was visible through the clear water below. The white bass were running now, and great schools of fish could be seen darting below our boats. Although we had to keep paddling to stay on schedule, we caught a few along the way, to fortify the night’s supper.
A sundog appeared at day’s end through the high cirrus moving in from the west, as we pulled into our goal for the night, Deadman Canyon at mile 53. The only campsite in the canyon was taken by fishermen. We elected to camp directly opposite the canyon’s mouth, in a site with good drift for fires and enough grassy spots between the cactus and acacia for the tents. I made my last artifact discovery of the trip, a good unfinished blank for a six inch spear point right in the middle of my now not to be finished cat-hole (artifact respectfully left in place, of course). Obviously this campsite was just as good for someone a thousand years ago as it was for us tonight.The final night on the river we killed off the last of the mini-kegs that we had saved from the river’s clutches two days before. Maybe it was over fighting for the last clam in the chowder, or maybe something to do with Ben Franklin’s old proverb about visitors three days overdue, but our only serious campfire dispute erupted, spoiling the night’s good cheer. No sooner had the peacemakers prevailed in calming the waters, then it would re-erupt like a case of bad heartburn. It eventually wound down of its own accord. Truce declared, we ended our last night on the Pecos.
We awoke to the sound of the bass boats again, but after the early morning rush to get to the fishing holes, the lake quieted back down. The truce from the night before held, and once again a sort of cohesive unit broke camp and started down the lake after a quick breakfast, to beat the headwinds that never really came. Most motor boaters maintained their courtesy by reducing speed in passing our flotilla.
The lower canyons here are actually one of the most intense areas of Pecos culture rock art. Several of us made a priority of side canyon explorations to search for the ancient paintings. As we pressed closer to our goal, the huge rock walls echoed more often with the bleating of goats clambering on the shear faces. On one sheer cliff face a kid goat was calling for its mother. It was tough to look at, and listen to, as I was expecting at any moment for it to plummet several hundred feet to its destruction. It didn’t, instead surviving the laws of natural selection, just as we were about to as well, having spied the High Bridge and our takeout in the far distance.It was a great trip, often rough and challenging, with the lure of the unseen remnants of the archaic Pecos Culture creating a sense of mystery the whole way. Everyone in the expedition made fantastic companions who were always there without complaint to help each other’s canoes through the tough portages, stand in freezing water to save a capsized boat’s gear and pitch in on the never ending camp duties. My only regret was not being able to make our goal of a full layover day at Painted Canyon. For that reason, the Pecos still beckons.
Lone Star Chronicles – Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Fish
To read Part 1, click here: http://lonestarchronicles.com/high-bridge-or-bust-seven-days-on-the-pecos-river/
To read Part 2, click here: http://lonestarchronicles.com/high-bridge-or-bust-seven-days-on-the-pecos-river-part-2/